The Stowe Farmers Market went through a lot of ups and downs before opening five weeks ago, and — with restrictions lifting and tourists coming to town — organizers are still trying to find a balance of safety, hospitality, and prosperity for both vendors and patrons.
Things are on the rise now. Last week, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture realigned restrictions on markets to match the guidelines given to restaurants. Markets can host music and allow people to eat the food onsite, but with reservations, contract tracing and diligent sterilization of surfaces.
The Stowe Farmers Market plans to allow dogs at its Mountain Road location, and will extend its hours on Sundays to 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
But there are no plans to weave music and on-site eating back into the weekly event. The organizers don’t have the budget or staffing.
“I just don’t think we can do it,” said Heather Mallory, the board chair.
The market looks a lot different than in years past. Masks are required, capacity is limited and there are no samples available for prospective buyers.
There are orange cones everywhere, marking off the boundaries of the market. They form a circle in the center, too, blocking off the picnic tables and creating a point from which the market goers can orbit. The space has a one-way counterclockwise flow.
There’s a single entrance to the loop from the parking lot. There’s sanitizer available, and above it is a sign that lays out the rules.
Hannah Stearns, who took the job of market manager this year, stands at the entrance, making sure people comply with the policies and keeping an eye on crowd density.
Once inside, it’s a local-fare merry-go-round. Nineteen tents stood in a circle on June 14, sporting plants, produce, syrup, soap, packaged foods and meals made to order.
Without music, the murmur of conversations and the smacks and sizzling of cooked food could be heard. The smell of bacon, eggs, fried dumplings and pizza filled the air. These were the most popular of the tents, each with lines of people standing a body’s length apart.
Once the food is done and in the customer’s hands, it can’t be eaten on site. Not allowed.
A few groups sat on the grassy hill outside the market’s border, some relaxing and talking, and others eating food presumably bought at the market.
That’s all the market organizers can do. The vendors do what they can to keep people following the rules, but Stearns is the only person dedicated to managing market-goers.
“We encourage people to eat elsewhere,” she said. The only trash, compost and recycling containers are in vendor tents. The market doesn’t have a budget for waste disposal.
Last week, people ignored the barriers around the picnic tables and sat down to eat. Stearns had to make them leave, but she doesn’t like having to police people. She said finding a balance between safety and fun is a tough job, and she relies mainly on cooperation from guests.
“The biggest thing is that we’re here, even if it has been a little different,” she said.
Now that groups of 150 are allowed in outdoor venues, that job will be a little easier, but Mallory doesn’t see the eating policy or lack of music changing.
“The music is part of what draws people to the farmers market and makes them stay. That kind of goes against the no-lingering,” she said. “Plus, our budget is so tight this year because we don’t have a lot of vendors.”
Mallory said a few more vendors will be added, now that the distance between tents has been reduced from 12 feet to 6 feet, but handling garbage, recycling and compost removal would be too expensive.
Market workers will continue to encourage guests to eat their food outside the boundary, but Mallory hopes people will be courteous and cooperative — especially with Independence Day weekend coming up.
“We’re basically having to just roll with the punches. We’re willing to adapt as the season goes on,” she said.
‘We need your support’
The June 14 market wasn’t a bustling affair. The sky was gray and it was a bit chilly, but the market’s been slow regardless of weather.
The Stowe Reporter spoke to a few vendors to see how things are going.
• “I come away from the farmers market feeling good,” said Elliot Smith, an owner of Life Arises farm in Wolcott.
He had a booth full of plants, herbs and greens. He plans to have vegetables available later in the season and was worried when the guidance didn’t allow plant sales.
“That was our plan all along,” he said, but that restriction was lifted. “Considering what’s happened, it’s been good.”
• John Belanger owns Triple J Pastures of Irasburg with his wife, Jennifer. They decided to make food-to-order last winter, it it wasn’t clear if it would be allowed. Once it was clear they could sell food at the market, he chose cheese and bread for their breakfast sandwiches that would travel well.
“We just try to keep it simple, making sure what they eat when they get home is a great product,” Belanger said.
These vendors all rely on farmers markets for a large portion of their sales.
• Kelly Davin, sole proprietor of the Nutty Vermonter, is worried for her business if things don’t change.
Behind a display of lightly seasoned cashews, pecans, almonds and butter versions of each, Davin said, “I built my entire business around farmers markets. My two biggest tools were my smile and my samples. Now those are gone.”
With summer tourism on shaky ground, her livelihood and those of her fellow vendors are in the community’s hands.
“Where you buy your food is important. Who you choose to support with your money is critically important. A vendor is your neighbor or family member or friend. … It cannot happen without you.”